Posted by jmdattilo
As any writer knows, characters in stories tend to take on lives of their own. You give them eye and hair color, personality traits and quirks, a background, possibly a few talents. Then, like Dr. Frankenstein, you stand back and watch your creations come to life. And, like Dr. Frankenstein, you sometimes discover that creations can behave in entirely unexpected ways.
We put a lot of work into creating characters for our books. We keep a notebook devoted to characters, detailing everything about them from physical descriptions to histories to favorite foods. Many of the details never actually make it into the stories, but they do help us create more fully developed characters who behave in ways consistent with their personalities and backgrounds. We talk about them as if they were real people and just like real people, they do not always follow the nicely constructed plot of their lives.
Nothing blows a hole in a plot faster than a character that just won’t react in the way we had planned. This shows up right away when trying to write a scene that requires a character to behave in a way that, well, just doesn’t suit them. The scene stumbles along, sputters and then stalls. We read it over, trying to determine where the problem is. Invariably, one of the characters is being difficult.
For example, Kate, one of the main characters in Time’s Edge, was supposed to reveal some of her secrets to Michael, the hero of the story. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it happen. No matter which way we wrote the scene, it was awful. Stilted. Unnatural. We finally realized she just didn’t want to reveal her secrets. She came from a family who had learned her secrets and treated her very badly because of it. She had spent her entire life hiding and trying to pretend that she was just like everyone else. She wasn’t about to spill her guts to Michael or anyone else. He would just have to discover her secrets for himself, a job it turns out that he was very good at. A whole new sub-plot developed that gave us a much more exciting and interesting tale.
And that is the strength of listening to characters. Like children (or monsters, if you prefer the Dr. Frankenstein approach), they go their own ways, think their own thoughts, live their own lives. Sometimes they’re logical, sometimes they’re not. They can be maddening, like when they insist on doing stupid things (ie: Michael dives head first through a dark doorway even though we all know he’s headed for disaster, but Kate is in trouble and he’s not the type to let a little thing like looming disaster get in his way!) or, worse, when you need them to do stupid things and they simply won’t (ie: Kate refuses to go through a dark doorway because she’s a seer and knows too darn well what’s waiting for her). She just knows better, even though you need her to do the dumb thing in order to further the plot.
Fortunately, characters have no idea where the plot is going and that’s very good. It frees them to be themselves. They don’t have the tunnel vision that comes from believing a story must unfold in a particular way. They are living the story, reacting as it develops. It’s a little bit like living in the Twilight Zone. We create characters and then they come to life and insist on behaving in ways we can’t seem to control. All we can do is provide them with interesting situations and then see what they do. We basically follow them, recording their experiences as they wander through the worlds we have created. Sometimes their reactions can lead the tale in new and wonderful directions and sometimes it can leave us wondering why we created these unruly beings to begin with. So here’s to Dr. Frankenstein and Rod Serling. We think they’d both understand how we feel.
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